Local Officials Hit MACo to Burnish Policy Chops, But Politics Over Masks Are Crashing the Party

The 2021 Maryland Association of Counties summer conference will be held next week in Ocean City. Photo from stock.adobe.com.

As thousands of state and local leaders prepare to descend on Ocean City for the biggest political gathering in Maryland since before the pandemic, some are wondering whether the myriad events associated with the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention will put attendees at risk with the delta strain of COVID-19 raging.

Masks are “strongly recommended,” and MACo also plans to enforce social distancing during the conference, with hand sanitizer stations set up throughout the Roland Powell Convention Center, according to its website. MACo Executive Director Michael Sanderson said the association consulted with local health officials in coming up with the conference’s COVID-19 safety precautions.

But some local officials, including Frederick County Commissioner Kai Hagen (D-At Large), would have liked to see MACo mandate the wearing of masks and require attendees to be vaccinated.

“It just seems to me that if we are going to set a proper example, if we are going to be a good example, if we’re going to provide the appropriate leadership on this issue, MACo would require attendees to be vaccinated,” Hagen said.

Sanderson said a vaccine mandate was never really on the table for the summer MACo conference, and that the association would struggle to enforce a full mask mandate.

“We don’t have the physical staff to sort of go around and police it even if it were a formal mandate,” Sanderson said.

Mask mandates were dropped in Maryland in recent months as COVID-19 cases subsided and the state’s vaccination rate increased, but with the surge of the highly contagious delta variant, some requirements have been reinstated in some counties. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that even fully vaccinated people should wear a mask indoors in areas with substantial or high transmission rates, according to the CDC website.

Worcester County was listed by the CDC as having a “high” transmission rate as of Wednesday.

As to why MACo opted to not require a vaccine at the conference, Hagen said he thinks it could have something to do with the number of Republicans who attend the MACo conference.

“Our counties are sending delegations to these meetings irrespective of the size of the counties,” Hagen said. “More than half of our counties are Republican and rural. Those are two words that coincide with the communities where vaccination rates have been lower.”

So while Maryland is a majority Democratic state, counties generally send delegations of similar size and that means Republicans have a large presence at MACo events. At least one of those Republican local leaders has already taken issue with MACo’s mask recommendations: Carroll County Commissioner Eric Bouchat (R) said at a recent board meeting that he canceled his attendance as a result of mask recommendations.

“I’m wondering if it’s necessary for us to go down there if it is so dangerous in the conference room that we have to wear masks even though most people are vaccinated,” Bouchat said.

Bouchat told Maryland Matters that he isn’t against masks or vaccines, but opposes mandates. He said the idea of MACo requiring its attendees to be vaccinated is “repugnant.”

“I believe it’s up to the individual and their right to decide whether to not only get vaccinated, but also wear a mask as well,” he said, “And if people are concerned and they have a vaccination and they wear a mask, then they should feel safe and it shouldn’t be projected upon other people to comply with it.”

Bouchat’s fellow Republican commissioners disagreed with his decision to cancel over mask recommendations, according to the Carroll County Times. Carroll County Commissioner Stephen A. Wantz (R), who also sits on MACo’s board of directors, said he would “not entertain anything that would keep us from that incredibly valuable conference.”

Hagen, a candidate for Frederick County executive in 2022, said he’s content to have elected officials who oppose masks stay away from the conference. He added that he’s still debating whether or not to attend.

“If we have elected officials, community leaders that are upset because they are required indoors at a large multi-day event to wear a mask for the benefit of themselves, their colleagues, their communities, good riddance if they don’t come,” Hagen said. “We don’t want them. They shouldn’t be going to any events.”

Sanderson said making decisions about COVID-19 protocols is “challenging,” particularly given the wide range of people who participate in MACo’s conferences. He expects, by and large, most attendees will abide by MACo’s mask recommendations regardless of where they stand on the political spectrum.

“I anticipate that there will be some attendees who are frustrated about the request to wear a mask,” Sanderson said. “There probably will end up being some attendees who are frustrated that we didn’t go further and have staff enforce a mask mandate on site, so we’ll probably get a little bit of both sides of that.”

The actual MACo conference in the Roland Powell Convention Center is only part of what’s drawing lawmakers to Ocean City later this month. Various fundraising events and social gatherings typically surround the conference, and MACo officials have no control over what safety precautions are taken at those extra-curricular events hosted by lawmakers, candidates, lobbying firms and other organizations.

Compass Advocacy is among the outfits hosting in-person gatherings in Ocean City during the conference. Hannah Powers Garagiola, the president of Compass, said the firm selected an outdoor venue for their planned gathering. Garagiola said the event will include hand sanitizing stations, and masks will be offered to people who aren’t vaccinated.

For CDC guidance for fully vaccinated individuals, click here

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